The Tyranny of the Scale
How the scale affects self-esteem and can sabotage your goal
Posted June 22, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Covid has led many to gain weight.
- The scale is an important tool in losing weight—if it's used the right way.
- Weighing yourself daily is bound to sabotage your best efforts.
It has been a very long year in the face of death, dying, isolation, and the changes in our lives that most have been going through. My condolences to all those who have lost so much.
As we emerge in different ways, however, many out there have struggled with "the Covid 19"—that is, those Covid pounds. that many of us put on almost without changing any eating or drinking habits! Being so cooped up and not moving out of the house or around much at all, even commuting, has definitely contributed to widespread weight gain.
It can be super tempting to weigh yourself and get hooked on the number and the habit of weighing. But there are many pitfalls to this practice, and it takes special attention so that it becomes a help rather than a hindrance.
What follows are some commonly asked questions on the subject, along with my responses as an eating disorders therapist.
Q: What are the concerns of people who obsess over the number on a scale?
A: Obsessing about the number on the scale is a common practice that can set up a powerful habit of recurrent and frequent weigh-ins. When you weigh yourself and like the number, it gives you a positive feeling, and like any positive feeling, it’s a powerful behavior reinforcer. The habit gets increasingly ingrained, and you might conclude that you need to "know the number" in order to maintain your positive new behavior.
The problem is that weighing yourself too frequently leaves you vulnerable to normal weight fluctuations. If you see a number that you don't like, it makes you feel bad.
The habit of weighing becomes hard to break despite the many days that the particular number makes you feel bad. You keep trying to catch that "good number" and good feeling. In that, it is like any addiction; we keep chasing that good feeling and are certain we can get it, despite the number of bad-feeling days!
How does weighing oneself effect self-esteem?
Self-esteem is powerfully affected by focusing on the number on the scale. People tend to get self-critical and very down on themselves if they feel the number is a “bad number.” They then tend to overgeneralized negative thoughts, such as: “I’m gross, I’m out of control, I’m bad.” Or, they tell themselves that from the number that they’ve “been bad” and therefore need to get "in control" and not eat the foods they love.
They sets them up to ricochet into more restrictive eating, which is unsustainable, or seeing te number as proof that they should be more restrictive, which can lead to more hunger and overeating of the foods they tell themselves they “shouldn’t“ eat.
This on/off, good day/bad day relationship with the scale turns into what I call the tyranny of the scale. It can end up controlling your mood and sets the tone for your days. You have a good day if you like the number, you dread the number if you’ve eaten more than you think you should, but you keep thinking that the scale is helping you stay in control. Self esteem quite literally is hijacked and held hostage by the scale. When we weigh ourselves, we measure our self worth. In numbers. Self-esteem is always conditional to the number.
An additional downside is that you stop being able to see the forest for the trees. It encourages obsessional thinking to cope with anxiety, as opposed to finding healthier ways to manage any upset feelings. It seduces you into the false belief that if you reach the magic goal number, you will ipso facto feel great about yourself.
The other dilemma it sets up is that you stop thinking of states of your body in realistic terms. It is a fact that we all have a weight fluctuation zone of about 10 pounds, and that is completely normal. It isn’t even necessarily related to what we’re eating or not eating.
A lot of factors impact fluid retention, which influences the number you will see.. Constant weighing diminishes ability to tolerate the natural rhythms of our physical state and acceptance of them, and sets off a negative mental spiral.
A "good" number can flood you with positive feelings—but also generate anxiety: You have to obsess over your behavior in order to maintain the number. It takes you out of living your life.
Many people I’ve worked with who have had long histories of eating issues say one of the most powerful things they did that helped their recovery was to stop weighing themselves "cold turkey." That is an important first step in addressing longstanding eating issues and ending the control over your life exerted by the tyranny of the scale.
How can we encourage ourselves to be more body positive?
Accept the reality that genetics exists and that our bodies will win out! Rather than trying to conform to what any other person looks like, and certainly what models look like, accept the reality that everyone has parts of themselves they feel good about and parts they don't. Push against the myth that some perfect body will confer happiness.
But how can we lose weight if we don't know what we weigh and how our efforts are going?
Generally speaking it is useful to weigh yourself once a week. You'll know whether you're going in the right direction and whether you need to make adjustments. I would never encourage daily weighing, especially since it can take a few days for your body to catch up if you've instituted new habits.
Often enough when the body is ready to drop those few pounds, you might see a number that looks discouraging and conclude that what you're doing isn't working. The body is not a machine .
Plus most bodies are on differing timetables. You can start off losing easily, (often because of water weight), and then plateau. This can be the most important time to not weigh yourself and just maintain the new habit. Holding anxiety in check during this time is important. Bodies need time to adjust!
Some people experience anxiety when they don’t weigh themselves. What are some ways to conquer that?
The anxiety comes from uncertainty.. Again, bodies are not machines and don’t respond immediately or even quickly. Metabolism is unique to the individual . That is another reason why closely watching the number doesn’t make any sense. If you can tolerate the anxiety, focus on an overall positive relationship with eating. That's how you gain control over the belief that you have no control over your food and your body.
How can the scale can be a danger to well-being?
For many people, frequent use of the scale ends up inhibiting social activities, their sex life, and their connections with others—leading to a depressed mood and isolation that can encourage giving up and sabotaging your changed behavior.
For those who are now getting out in the world, moving more, and trying to change eating habits to lose weight, the best recipe is patience, self-kindness, and consistency. Track things over longer periods of time, and focus on the change in some behaviors without focusing on the outcome. It will come!